The Shocking Disney Shakeup: Why Exactly Was Peter Rice Ousted?

The Shocking Disney Shakeup: Why Exactly
Courtesy of Brad Barket/FOX

In an industry where many executives are quick to tout their own accomplishments, Peter Rice was known for turning down opportunities to take a public victory lap.

The soft-spoken British executive, who was ousted on Wednesday from the top TV job at Disney, has a reputation for quietly cultivating relationships with producers and directors such as Baz Luhrmann and Danny Boyle. In the 2000s, he leveraged those ties to boost the performance of Fox Searchlight Pictures with hits such as “Moulin Rouge!” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” More often than not, Rice let the directors, producers and actors take the bows.

That low-maintenance demeanor would serve Rice well in Murdoch’s empire as he became close to the family and rose in 2009 to oversee all of Fox’s entertainment networks. After the sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney in 2019, Rice took over the largest swath of Disney’s TV operations (everything but the ESPN empire). On Thursday, he was formally replaced by his top lieutenant, Walt Disney Television entertainment chairman Dana Walden.

Disney’s TV content engines had been revving high under Rice and Walden’s leadership, which makes Rice’s abrupt dismissal all the more head-spinning for industry insiders. Rice and Walden had worked together for years at Fox, and the two made the leap to Disney three years ago, becoming the only Fox executives to take over a division after the acquisition.

By all accounts, Rice didn’t see it coming — at all. He was blindsided as he learned of his fate in what was described by a source as a conversation with Disney CEO Bob Chapek that lasted less than 10 minutes. Chapek simply felt that Rice was not, in fact, Team Chapek, according to multiple sources close to the situation.

In Walden, Chapek saw an executive who was easily adapting to the Disney system, working the levers of its production, marketing and distribution machine to effectively turn out glossy and prestigious shows for Hulu, ABC, Freeform and the new Onyx Collective banner. Disney insiders said Chapek, who took the CEO reins from Bob Iger in February 2020, felt Rice was unhappy with the massive reorganization of TV operations that Chapek implemented in October 2020.

Nonetheless, Rice had received only positive feedback and compliments about his leadership and operational decisions in the past at Disney. There was no indication that the corporate side was dissatisfied with his work — reinforced by the fact that he signed a new multi-year deal late last year. When Rice pressed Chapek for a reason for this dismissal — just three weeks after the two shared the stage in New York at Disney’s impressive May 17 upfront presentation for advertisers — the response boiled down to Rice not being the right “fit” for Chapek’s organization, according to multiple sources.

Rice’s biggest management challenge during his Disney tenure came with ABC News. Sources there said the rank and file often waited for him to articulate his plans in bigger, bolder fashion. They craved more direction from the top boss, according to people familiar with the news division. One of these people says ABC News staffers haven’t developed a closer rapport with Rice and some veterans remain upset that he pushed out former ABC News president James Goldston last year in favor of CBS News alum Kim Godwin.

ABC News under Godwin has in recent weeks made important strides: “Good Morning America” has in the past five weeks taken the lead in the 25-54 demo from NBC’s Today, a big deal in the scorched-earth battle of morning TV. And “This Week,” the George Stephanopoulos Sunday public affairs show has been performing strongly in the ratings. ABC News has yet to unveil new concepts in streaming under Godwin, though she recently hired a new executive, Reena Mehta, from HBO Max ,to oversee a digital push. Rice has been seen as Godwin’s big supporter inside Disney, even after she raised eyebrows at the company by calling for an internal investigation related to allegations made against former ABC News senior producer Michael Corn, but without discussing the prospect with senior management before doing so. A suit against Corn was dismissed earlier this week.

Dana Walden is the new leader of Disney TV operations after the shocking ouster of her longtime boss, Peter Rice. - Credit: Disney General Entertainment ContentDisney General Entertainment Content

Chapek’s move to take Rice out of the kingdom is particularly surprising given the former’s image problems in the creative community of late. Rice is a well-traveled and well-liked executive with strong creative and business chops. Chapek, a 29-year Disney executive with roots in film, home entertainment, consumer products and theme parks, is still overcoming the PR damage done from Disney’s public legal battle over “Black Widow” profits last year with star Scarlett Johansson. This year, Chapek has been at the center of public controversy and internal strain with Disney employees over the company’s handling of a wave of anti-LGBT legislation in Florida.

In recent months, Rice has often been mentioned as a strong candidate to succeed Chapek if the Disney board were to decide that the world’s largest media company needed a new quarterback. Speculation that this was a source of touchiness between Chapek and Rice was only stoked by the fact that Disney board chairman Susan Arnold issued a state of support for Chapek on Thursday on the heels of the Rice news: “Bob and his leadership team have the support and confidence of the Board,” Arnold said.

Rice’s sudden departure will undoubtedly shakeup the status quote within Disney TV. Walden’s elevation puts her above two executives with whom she’s long been peers: FX Networks president John Landgraf and National Geographic Worldwide chief Courteney Monroe. Landgraf is one of the most highly regarded and erudite executives in the entertainment industry. Monroe has earned much praise for her turnaround of Nat Geo’s TV content strategy since she took the helm of the group in 2015.

Walden will take over a portfolio that has grown significantly. Hulu has developed a growing slate of originals, including the comedic mystery series “Only Murders in the Building” and the biopic “Pam & Tommy,” the Elizabeth Holmes limited series “The Dropout” and the highly praised story of the opioid epidemic, “Dopesick,” starring Michael Keaton. ABC has new comedy successes such as “Abbott Elementary” as well as the durable “Grey’s Anatomy” franchise. And the company still produces top shows for other networks: Fox’s “9-1-1,” “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons.”

Rice, meanwhile, is expected to take some time to consider his next move. For years, he’s been mentioned as a CEO contender whenever there’s turmoil at any of the media giants. He has long been close with Fox baron Rupert Murdoch, and recently raised some eyebrows by turning up at the May 25 world premiere of “Elvis” at the Cannes Film Festival. At an afterparty for the Luhrmann film, thrown by Warner Bros. Discovery, Rice told Variety he was in London on business and had popped over to the French Riviera specifically to see the film. It struck some as odd that a top Disney executive would turn up at a splashy Warner Bros. event, although Rice and Luhrmann do have a long professional history.

Now, Rice is suddenly back on the market. Media executives with his depth and breadth of experience in film, TV, sports and news are a rare breed. Rice also burnished his reputation last fall when he stepped up to help the major studios navigate tricky negotiations with IATSE after contract talks stalled and the union came close to its first widespread strike in decades.

Rice’s availability could well encourage a big move by any number of Big Media players who may be considering a major management shakeup at a tumultuous time overall for the industry. For now, as he sorts through his next moves, Rice’s longstanding preference for keeping his head down and letting others do the talking will serve him well.

(Claudia Eller, Matt Donnelly and Adam B. Vary contributed to this report.) 

From Variety US